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Wither iTunes?: Exploring Great Digital Audio Options Beyond Apple's Ecosystem
By Music Direct Brand Ambassador Bes Nievera

With more of our customers gravitating toward components that pool their physical media – downloaded or purchased content scored on iTunes or its contemporaries – and the increasing sound-quality improvements of streaming services like Spotify, Deezer, TIDAL, and Qobuz, the news of Apple cutting the cord on its iTunes app and divvying it up into three different apps shouldn't seem like a big surprise.

In the past few years, our brand partners updated many of their most revered designs or introduced new products for a new generation of digital music fans who wanted to change from Apple's most recognizable app and service. Lenbrook Group (parent company of NAD), for example, ushered in the era of hi-definition streaming and network audio interfacing by launching Bluesound in 2014 to great effect. Denon and Marantz followed suit with Heos, a comparable platform for streaming audio to an audio hardware lineup that integrates Amazon Music and more. Recent entries or updated models from Bel Canto, Arcam, Mytek, PS Audio, Pro-Ject Audio, and Aurender, to name a few, have made the process of folding all that you play digitally into easy-to-enjoy experiences. We're offering some recent suggestions below, although our selection remains demonstratively far and wide. Your Music Direct audio consultant can provide you with their own insight on what mates best with your musical needs. That said, here are a few choice picks.

AudioQuest DragonFly
Without a doubt, the DragonFly DAC is the perfect entry-level product for the masses. Whether tethered to your phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, and regardless of playback source, DragonFly has stood the test of time in producing great sound with anything into which it is plugged. As a DAC that supports MQA and high-res audio, DragonFly sounds sublime. As a headphone amp, its capacity to play with efficient headphone designs for even the most fussiest of ear-gear wearers, and double as a line-out option to powered speakers or a good home audio setup, translates to crisp audio at the drop of a hat.

iFi Audio xDSD Amp/DAC
For the dedicated headphone wearer and/or laptop junkie, this little wonder (about the size of a Kit-Kat candy bar) ranks among the best products we've heard from the folks at iFi Audio. Capable of being used anywhere on its own power (it can operate for up to eight hours), it offers up to full 2x DSD playback with MQA files and reproduces PCM and DSD files with exceptional clarity. Add proprietary 3D+ and XBass+ filtering, and your headphone playback just got a whole lot more emotionally compelling.

Pro-Ject Audio PreBox S2 Digital
For the house-bound music lover looking to create a dedicated digital playback space for computer audio, or to get a product to serve as a liaison to component audio systems or amplified speakers from the likes of ELAC, KEF, Audioengine, and others, this award-winning DAC/preamp is just the ticket. Able to operate with its own app, or play nice with any computer, the PreBox S2 Digital offers a major upgrade in audio playback thanks to its superb parts and chipset. Its smooth sound was a tonic for me during recent auditions. Each listen was unique, yet it excelled in MQA playback as well as with high-res files with a variety of headphones – as well as through our battery of powered loudspeakers and, on one occasion, our McIntosh setup in our wonderful in-house listening rooms.

Bluesound Vault 2i
We've been big supporters of Bluesound since its arrival, and customers have been more than happy with its ease of use and exceptional sound. The latest-generation Vault offers the widest array of streaming options and seamless integration with your home network or NAS drive. Inside, a robust 2TB ripper slowly but effortlessly extracts the ones and zeros of your CDs, saving them as FLAC files. Content is accessed through an app with art, tracks, and more. Install this with your favorite DAC or via a Digital input on your Processor/Preamp/Home Theater Receiver, and watch the sound quality soar.

ROON Nucleus and Nucleus+
Like its namesake service, the ROON Nucleus and Nucleus+ are self-contained cores with the capability to manage your music using any high-capacity hard drive. Its networking capabilities sever the need for auxiliary computers and give you the freedom to delve into your music like never before. Just add cables and your fave Hi-Res Streaming service like Qobuz or TIDAL, and you're off and running with the most sophisticated music management service on the planet.

Mytek Brooklyn Bridge
Mytek is best known as the company that, along with Sony, ushered in the era of DSD technology with the creation of Sony's Studio Master Recorder. Mytek's first DAC, introduced in 2011, set the standard, with model after model excelling beyond the original design. Like its siblings, Brooklyn Bridge aims high to be one of the most accurate DACs in its class. Its onboard streamer functionality with full-MQA unfolding, MM/MC phono or line-level input, and the ability to strap onto any amp as a dedicated digital preamp/streamer add to its list of strengths.

Arcam CDS50
With Oppo's recent exit from the marketplace and the end of its iconic universal players, Arcam answered the call for a suitable player/streamer combo featuring great sound. CDS50 is a versatile source deck with CD and SACD playback and the capability to stream native files and popular music services like TIDAL and Qobuz via Arcam's onboard Network Audio Player/Streamer (and their Music Life app). Those with collections of SACDs and CDs will celebrate Arcam's sublime sonics, while the 32-bit ESS DAC supports up to 24/192 file playback. It runs best when using Ethernet, although it equally manages music with its on-board WiFi receiver if cables aren't an option.

Esoteric N-05
From Teac's big brother, Esoteric, this standalone DAC/streamer amazes because of DNA taken from Esoteric's flagship Grandioso DAC. Currently in use in our listening rooms in Chicago, N-05 is our go-to DAC in terms of dead-on musicality and accuracy. With 34-bit D/A processing, an HLCD buffer, and an ES-Link Analog Line Transmission among its benefits, D-05x stands as an excellent example of musical purity in one box. As a Standalone Network Audio Player that mates with Roon, unfolds MQA via TIDAL, and plays Hi-Res Qobuz streams, the N-05 is audiophile performance for the price.

PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DSD DAC
Like the Esoteric, this DAC is the epitome of sonic cool. Highly regarded by users for its multiple interfaces, including HDMI over i2S, and its most recent OS upgrade (known as Snowmass), it continues to advance its already outstanding sound quality. When coupled with PS Audio's Bridge II, the DAC's features as streamer include TIDAL with MQA, ROON, and Qobuz, among others. And DIrectStream technology lets you enjoy your favorite music with remarkable accuracy.

June 7, 2019

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